written by: allychevalier•edited by: Rebecca Scudder•updated: 6/27/2011
A history of the home personal computer is the history of computers as is relevant to most people - the computers that today many use to work, play, communicate, a critical part of life in the digital age. But how did they develop? This article provides a brief history.
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From Specialized to Mainstream
The very first computers were used solely for scientific research functions. That is, after all, how technology develops, first at the hand of scientists until it can be adapted and used by the mainstream. These computers filled entire rooms, not exactly practical for most people, and required many operators. With the development first of magnetic core memory and then RAM for microprocessors, this size was able to be drastically cut down into something manageable. Still, they were not user friendly, requiring complex operating procedures, and weren't of much interest to most people anyway.
Eventually, they began to be adopted for computational purposes by businesses and other scientists. In turn, a community of computer enthusiasts developed, people who would buy them for hobby purposes. The first computer to be sold at a consumer level was mail-order, the Altair in 1974.
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Making the computer user friendly enabled it to be marketed to the masses. This involved a number of developments over the 70s and 80s, trickling in one at a time and each contributing to greater usability and marketability to a mainstream audience. These variously included the invention of the CRT, and then color, so that people didn't have to rel on a single line of output. Following this was such developments as the GUI, the graphical user interface, allowing for more intuitive computer use, and the mouse, allowing you to have something on the screen to point and click. Many of these are remarkably simple concepts to use in retrospect, but were huge leaps of invention at the time. Such things allowed computers to be usable to the geneal public.
Making them desirable, on the other hand, was a different trick. Though much cheaper than they had been, they were still quite expensive for most people. An ever-expanding number of software programs made them tempting, games, word processors, tools that took advantage of ever-increasing hardware improvement.
With the rise of the Internet, owning your own personal home computer became not just a desirable object to own, but a necessity to see the outside world. They became tools essentially for everyday life, from checking the news to keeping in touch with friends to playing games to even applying to jobs. They were a terminal by which anyone who could afford them accessed the world outside their immediate surrounding, and as such, has been deemed necessary for a complete life in the digital age.
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Desktops v Laptops
Up to this point, we have been referring largely to desktops. Laptop computers are now also on the rise, and in many respects replacing desktops. Many people do not own desktops at all, taking this one laptop with them wherever they go for whatever computer needs they have. Students getting their first computer need something they can carry around with them, something portable that can be taken from class to class, while businessmen need to be able to travel with their computer. They are an incredible convenience; the ability to take your computer anywhere.
It is still quite likely that desktops will stick around, though perhaps not necessarily as the default choice of computer owners. They are more easy to customize and upgrade, a plus for technology enthusiasts, and by merit of having fewer space constraints also can have better processing power and more memory than a mere laptop.